Michael Howard has risked widening the rift between the Conservatives and the White House by refusing to express any pleasure at the re-election of George W Bush as President of the United States.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Howard said that it was "not appropriate to express a view" on last Tuesday's result. The Conservative leader's coolness towards Mr Bush contrasts with the attitude of Tony Blair, who was quick to congratulate the President.
Mr Blair is expected to fly to Washington within weeks for fresh talks on Iraq, a visit which will seal his status as the President's closest overseas ally.
Mr Howard, however, when asked if he was pleased that Mr Bush, a fellow leader of a Right-wing party, had prevailed, would only answer: "I made it clear that I could work perfectly well with both President Bush and President Kerry."
His remarks, in an interview with Dominic Lawson, the Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, were made two months after a furious row between the White House and the Conservatives over Mr Howard's criticism of elements of the Government's approach to the war in Iraq.
Karl Rove, Mr Bush's closest adviser, was reported to have told Mr Howard's aides: "You can forget about him meeting the President. Don't bother coming." In his interview today, Mr Howard, far from trying to heal the rift, returned to the attack, accusing the White House of being "very protective of Mr Blair".
He added: "I am not going to be told by anyone how to do my job, and if it displeases those in the White House, that's tough. As to whether, as Prime Minister, that would be a problem for me, well, if Mr Blair is not there any more then the White House won't need to be protective of him."
Even though many Conservative MPs backed Mr Kerry, the coolness shown by the leader of the Conservative Party towards a Republican president on his re-election will be seen as startling on all sides at Westminster.
By contrast, the disclosure that Mr Blair is planning a trip to Washington will be seen as a slap in the face for Labour MPs pressing for the Prime Minister to distance himself from the President ahead of the general election, which is expected next year.
Mr Blair is also expected to use his Washington trip to try to persuade Mr Bush to do more to help the Middle East peace process.
By Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor Filed: 07/11/2004
© Telegraph UK